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Curtain Call: Interview with Jonah Bokaer

Award-winning international choreographer Jonah Bokaer creates work integrating dance with cross-disciplinary collaborations among artists and architects. Tonight, the newly minted Guggenheim Fellow performs “Other Myths” at Atlanta’s Contemporary Art Center, followed by a New York performance on May 3. Here, we catch up with Bokaer on cross-disciplinary collaborations, temporality and the art of “Total Movement.”

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What is the relationship between movement and form in your work?

My choreography begins with visual art and design, then goes to drawing and animation, landing then afterwards with dancers in rehearsal, and finally, becomes fully rendered in space at each theater or museum venue. It is a form some of my collaborators and I have started to call “Total Movement.”

How does time inform your practice?

I work in harmony with the scale of each performance occasion. Theater performances tend to have a specific duration, and if I may say so, conventional constraints around the expectations of a ticketed audience. I find the temporality of programming in museums to be much more accommodating, elastic, and adaptable, in terms of the time of a performance. When a given length of time is established, I then work on a structure that can create the most powerful dramaturgy (form) for the audience to experience the performance.

Would you describe your process as one of ‘control’ or ‘release’? I describe my process as the intensification of dance—and visual art.

“On Vanishing” at the Guggenheim Museum © Ben Nicholas, 2011

“On Vanishing” at the Guggenheim Museum © Ben Nicholas, 2011

Of the apps you have developed—Mass.Mobile, Fifth Wall, Event and Crowd Codes—which do you think was the most successful in achieving its intended purpose?

Fifth Wall, produced with 2wice Arts Foundation, Pentagram, and Abbot Miller, was the most successful in terms of its interface with the user. Some people even say that it competes with “Angry Birds,” in terms of maintaining audience interest!

Do you tend to consider movement or sound first when creating a choreographed work?

I always begin with the visual and design elements of my choreography. Following that, and the design of the space, I then go towards the design of actual movement. Then I work with dancers. Finally, at the end, we implement music. To my knowledge, our company is the only process in the world working this way.

How did you and Daniel Arsham meet and why did you decide to collaborate?

Daniel and I met in Miami, in March 2007, which was the first time he collaborated with Merce Cunningham. We met onstage at the Adrienne Arsht Center [for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County]—which is where our friendship began. We have been friends, and have been working together, ever since.

 

Excerpt from “Four Women” commissioned by the CJH © Jonah Bokaer, 2014

Excerpt from “Four Women” commissioned by the CJH © Jonah Bokaer, 2014

Does theory inform your work? If so, how?

I read constantly, and at times, I absorb current innovations in critical theory. But no: theory does not inform my choreography, I keep it very concrete, and very focused on visual innovation.

How did you connect with Richard Chai and how do you conceive of his aesthetic choices in relation to your work?

The opportunity to work with the brilliant designer Richard Chai, which is a relationship that I treasure, was made possible through an introduction from Daniel [Arsham] in 2011. Richard agreed to make costumes for our most significant group production, called “Why Patterns,” which appeared in Holland in 2010 and was re-staged by my company the following year. The arrival of Richard as a contributor to the stage, is a phenomenon and a revelation. His talents, as applied to dance, are a true miracle. I’m very grateful.

Richard also worked on the costumes for your performance of “CURTAIN” at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, correct?

Yes, the costumes were made of Parachute silk made by Richard Chai. It’s the first time Richard worked for stage and he did a brilliant job. I believe it was also the first time parachute silk has been used in costuming.

“Eclipse” at Brooklyn Academy of Music © Ben Nicholas, 2012

“Eclipse” at Brooklyn Academy of Music © Ben Nicholas, 2012

What is your greatest challenge in creating new work?

Financing. There’s very little money for new dance of this kind. We have to raise it—every time.

Where does the intersection of your work in visual art, choreography and technology lie? Beginning in 2002, I started developing a body of work addressing the creative potential of digital technologies in movement production. I often create choreography by rendering a virtual body in the built domain, employing motion capture, digital animation, 3D modeling, and choreographic software to generate movement material. ‘Choreography’ involves designing a body on screen, embodying its movements in real time and performing the choreography live.

What is the thread that runs through all of your creative practice? While developing this new artistic practice, I frequently question (and subvert) the visual spaces in which my work is performed, creating site-specific installations that playfully critique the venue presenting a dance. This generally involves a visual or sonic intervention in the periphery of each individual venue. I am also deeply committed to fostering interdisciplinary dialogue within museum spaces, in the U.S. and internationally, using the grammar of visual and installation art to stage dances. This is a new or revised form, which I have been pioneering since 2002, and more intensively since 2008. This was on full display at PAMM, and I’m honored for the opportunity to bring such a work to Miami.

“CURTAIN,” Festival d’Avignon © Pascal Gely, SACD, 2012.

“CURTAIN,” Festival d’Avignon © Pascal Gely, SACD, 2012.

What projects are you working on now and what are you most looking forward to in the spring?

I’m honored to share news that I was recently named a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow in Choreography, last week. It was very surprising, and very humbling to receive this news. What the Fellowship allows, is for me to focus on some of my most serious projects, works and creative risks in the field of choreography. I plan to finish a project I’ve been working on for about 8 years and also to focus a bit more intensively on my drawings and animations. In terms of other projects, I’m glad to say that Daniel Arsham and I are at work on a very large new production slated for 2016—accompanied by a well-known composer and a symphony orchestra—with substantial touring planned for 2017. It’s a work that will synthesize existing repertory with Daniel Arsham, along with an ambitious new creation, with original scenography by Arsham.

Text by Lauren Pellerano Gomez. This interview originally appeared in Cultured Magazine.

Lauren Gomez